Chinese web users were briefly given a glimpse of how the internet looks to the rest of the world, after a domestic app provided access to previously banned sites like YouTube, Google and Facebook. More surprisingly, the Tuber browser appeared to be completely legal, backed by Chinese cybersecurity firm 360 Security Technology.
Any joy over their newfound freedom was short-lived, however. First, the browser stopped functioning and shortly afterwards, disappeared from the Huawei-run app store altogether. There is no official word as to why the app has been removed, or indeed why it was allowed in the first instance, but it’s likely that government officials decided that allowing users more online freedoms was too much of a risk.
Tuber, which was downloaded 5 million times before its disappearance, still censored some content – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s name yielded just a handful of YouTube results – but nevertheless marked a significant relaxing of online regulations (for a few weeks, at least).
Online censorship is simply a way of life in mainland China, with major Western sites blocked by the Chinese government’s so-called ‘Great Firewall’. Many Chinese citizens regularly use VPNs to access blocked sites, but these too are routinely removed by the government. Tuber briefly offered a state-sanctioned route to online freedom.
Whether the decision to launch Tuber was part of a trial run looking at opening up the internet or simply a mistake, there remains a belief that officials will eventually grant Chinese citizens some access to the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Earlier this year, reports indicated that China planned to open up its VPN market to foreign operators and there have been suggestions that the country’s data localization measures may soon be relaxed.